SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Fishing Lake Michigan is always an adventure.
It’s a trip I’ve been making for more than 40 years, beginning as a teenager when I’d tag along with my father and a good friend of his. We walked out on the breakwater walls from Port Washington to Sturgeon Bay on the Wisconsin shoreline, casting spoons in search of tackle-testing trout and salmon.
When the salmon fishery was in its heyday in the late 1970s and ’80s, we perfected a technique using live alewives that produced many memorable catches from the Sheboygan breakwater walls.
Eventually, I rigged my 16-foot Alumacraft with manual downriggers and trolling rods. That added a new dimension to my Lake Michigan experience, as did friendships with Lyle and Judy Youngblut of Oelwein and Tom Bohacek of Manitowoc, who operated charter boats out of Two Rivers, Wis., about 25 miles north of Sheboygan.
Over the years, the fishery has evolved as biologists seek a sustainable balance between the number of trout and salmon and the number of alewives and other forage.
While there still are opportunities to catch trout and salmon from those breakwater walls, most Lake Michigan fishing these days is done from boats. We still try to take ours (a 19-foot Lund) over to the big pond a couple of times a year, but there’s always a risk of arriving to big wind and big waves that keep us off the water.
A couple of weeks ago, we decided to eliminate most of that risk by booking a five-hour morning trip with Dumper Dan charters out of Sheboygan. It proved to be a prudent decision.
My wife, Nancy, and I arrived at the Dumper Dan office about 4:30 a.m. for a trip scheduled to leave at 5 a.m. We struck up a conversation with a couple of guys from the Humboldt area who caught a 10-fish limit the previous afternoon and were heading out for a morning trip on another Dumper Dan boat (they have six Baja Cruisers in the 28-foot range).
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We met our captain, Mike, a 30-year veteran on Lake Michigan, and our young first mate, Sam, and headed out to an area about 10 miles away where they had located some fish the previous afternoon in 130 feet of water.
Sam began setting the trap, which featured 12 lines (Wisconsin law allows three per angler). Our wide spread included downriggers, directional trolling sinkers and planer boards designed to cover a variety of depths, and rigs consisting of flasher-fly combos and spoons.
About the time an orange fireball of sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, one of the flasher-fly rods began to buck wildly and the line screeched off the reel. Nancy got our day started by wrestling and eventually landing an angry Chinook (also known as king salmon) in the 10-pound range.
A few minutes later, the same rod doubled over again and Nancy won an exhausting battle with an 16-pound lake trout that left her forearms quivering.
I took the next turn and got all I could handle with an 18-pound king salmon that set its sights on Manitowoc and took off on a bulldogging, line-screeching run I wasn’t sure I would ever get stopped. Then, every time I’d get 50 feet or so of line back, it took off again. Finally, after a tug of war that lasted at least 10 minutes, Sam slipped the net under that big silver torpedo.
As the wind increased to 15-20 mph or and the waves grew to two-footers and then three-footers, the fishing got tougher. Captain Mike did what he could to slow down our trolling speed, including the use of two sea anchors, and Sam changed lures and presentations looking for a productive combination. We had two other fish that were on and off before we got to fight them and we boated two more hefty lake trout that completed our catch.
By Sheboygan and Dumper Dan standards (it’s been a good season so far), our catch wasn’t exceptional, but it was a fun, exciting morning that probably wouldn’t have happened had we taken our own smaller boat.
That’s Lake Michigan fishing. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, but it’s a great option for the dog days of summer when fishing on the Mississippi River and inland lakes gets tough.